It's been a little over a year and Margo Weeks has no regrets. Sure, there were the usual growing pains, hiccups and potential missteps, but Weeks was there every step of the way.
As the owner of a new enterprise portal, Weeks, an IS manager for the Radio Shack Canada, noted that while the obvious benefit was having a central repository for data, automating the electronics retailer's business processes for mission critical applications was the main goal. The immediate business benefits of the portal included consolidating one message and one voice, along with reducing costs by eliminating paper-based processes such as packages for new hires, payroll and expense reimbursement.
The product, a CleverPath Portal Solution from Computer Associates International (CA), was deployed over a two-month period. The portal was accessible first internally, then to regional and district managers, repair centers, store managers and finally to store employees.
But the cost savings represented the ultimate measure of success, along with the benefits to the IT staff. "The big thing for the IS department is we don't have to administer all the content because the content is put on there by the actual business units," Weeks noted.
Using enterprise portal software can indeed serve to cut through the clutter created by the Web, intranets/extranets, disparate networks and legacy applications. But most organizations know this already. The real challenge is in presenting a rock-solid business case - once you get past the wow factor of having centralized access to data, all the intangibles a portal brings must be quantified. Building the portal is the easy part. The key is to keep it effective.
The initial leap of faith
It wasn't long ago that having a Web portal simply meant assembling a flashy framework of hyperlinks, boxes, icons and tabs on a screen. But in today's environment, the justification for building a portal goes far beyond that and towards building a business case for being an organizations' key information source. IT execs must be able to clearly state how the technology will benefit enterprises both in the short term and long term. The portal's greatest value is that it can (when properly done) integrate core business processes into a unified virtual application architecture. This makes necessary the IT framework that externalizes data, applications and processes.
According to Craig Roth, vice-president at research firm Meta Group, rationalizing portal and Web content management infrastructures rated as a top technology issue for 2003. The decision to invest in an enterprise portal is not a question of if, but when, Roth said. Organizations are increasingly faced with issues such as consolidating or managing multiple portals and measuring the value from past investments.
For Jonathan Starkey, IT data architecture manager at Labatt Breweries of Canada in Toronto, building an enterprise portal was the solution to the typical business problem of coping with huge amounts of data -- paper documents and electronic documents that the corporation wants to retain in a searchable electronic memory. Sharing knowledge translates into improving efficiencies. Yet at the same time, Starkey said, with portals it is often very difficult to establish a clear return on investment. "It's a soft proposition that requires a leap of faith," Starkey said. "You can spend some time trying to put together some components and trying to show how…particular pieces of technology will provide some clear benefit."
In Labatt's case, it was a matter of finding and using anecdotal evidence to extend and extrapolate to other business units. "It's a bit of a leap of faith but if you can find really good representative use-case scenarios then you enable people's imaginations," Starkey said. The effectiveness is in the software's ability to connect the enterprise's front and back end, giving users a single, personalized point of access to multiple types of information from any device, wired or wireless.
Labatt's first kick at implementing a portal "exceeded expectations from a usership and authorship angle," Starkey said. The brewer decided on using a portal product from Microsoft to maintain a similar look and feel with its existing infrastructure. Keeping it effective for Labatt meant undergoing a refresh in February of 2003, Starkey said, specifically by adding more services such as document management. In the near future there also are plans to streamline the enterprise workflow.
Moving forward, organizations without a portal framework will be at a competitive disadvantage, as portals will increasingly be used to provide a strategic unification of context, process roles, rules, and user preferences. The two most common types of failure for portal projects within the enterprise, Roth said, include technically adept portals that are never accepted by the enterprise and a lack of supporting infrastructure. Implementing a portal is not so much a project as it is a program. "There is no clear start or end," Starkey said. Continually refreshing the technology is what provides the increased capability and performance. This translates into keeping the portal effective and relevant, he added.
Common portal pitfalls can be traced to poor execution in the early stages. Too many companies begin their process with technology selection, which is "a recipe for failure," according to Roth. Implementing a portal is one thing, but the more difficult task is expanding the portal to allow organizations to use existing infrastructure investments and gain easier access to knowledge. The framework can be then used both inside and outside the organization, be it internal communications, business-to-business interactions or populating business-to-consumer Web sites.
For the province of New Brunswick's Ministry of Tourism, implementing a portal was a direct response to the fundamental shift in the way its target market was accessing its Web site.
Balancing technology with the business process was key to keeping it effective. There was a business requirement to redo the province's official tourism Web site, according to Mark Gaudet, director of corporate services, New Brunswick Department of Tourism and Parks. "We had fragmented databases and fragmented applications." Having the information on one consolidated database went a long way toward making operations both effective and efficient, Gaudet said. This ultimately drives more traffic to the Web. Efficiencies were also gained in connecting the IT staff more closely with production and research, Gaudet said. In the Ministry's case, keeping the portal effective means the ability to quickly modify seasonal campaigns. The measure of the portal's value, Gaudet said, was in increased traffic to site and the ability to offer more of its publications in PDF format to reduce print and distribution costs.
Tim Hortons recently bet dollars to donuts that connecting a Web-based portal to its IT back office was the key to staying competitive. According to Debra Stafford, vice-president and CIO of TDL Group (which operates Tim Hortons), the gamble paid off.
Stafford recently delivered a keynote at the CIO Summit in Toronto. The biggest challenge for the food service chain - known primarily for its coffee and donuts - was to sustain growth and speed of service without an increase in clerical staff, overhead and manual processes. But with more than 2,000 stores in Canada and the United States, developing a fully operational portal on a well-integrated technology platform presented no easy task. Prior to automating its systems, Stafford estimated that Tim Hortons was losing US$1 million for every additional 200 stores. Back then, being labor intensive was the order of the day, she said.
It was important to keep implementation time for the IT project short, Stafford said.
"Everyone knows that if IT projects go over a year, attention and interest start to wane," she added. The key was also to "make the CFO the czar," Stafford said, adding that this ensured the project stayed on track financially. Convincing the individual franchisees to buy in took a bit of time, Stafford said. Validating the return on investment was the main concern. In the end Stafford said the company managed to lower its clerical staff and overhead, and automate processes such as collecting receivables.
Shoring it up
Keeping the portal effective is the name of the game. Enterprises that continue to enhance their portal framework will find the most success. Another spin-off benefit for Labatt was the restructuring of its business process. "There is a positive effect on the IT staff," Labatt's Starkey said.
"When you first introduce the portal, no one knows how to use it," Radio Shack's Weeks said. "But when they start using it, it grows so quickly that you then forced to rein it back." The portal should become a natural extension of the workspace, Starkey said. "Information is not necessarily accessed in the same way that it is filed."
The key is to create a navigational system and search engine that is very natural to use and that spans multiple types of storage into one search engine. "It's a challenge because different tools use different metadata structures," Starkey noted. By extending the portal's reach and utilizing enhancements including location-based technologies and intelligent notification, organizations can move closer towards the "anytime, any place, any device" capabilities that really makes the business case. Companies that continue to find new ways to drive this evolution -- from a personalized information delivery to more simplified integration to dynamic, machine-to-machine processing -- will be the ultimate winners.